Aerophobia is the debilitating fear of flying in an airplane. Despite statistics that say flying by plane is safer than traveling by car, bus, or train, many people are afraid of flying.1 Psychologists estimate that between one in three and one in five people will experience aerophobia during their lifetime.2
Fortunately, this specific phobia is treatable through methods of therapy and, if necessary, medication.
What Is Aerophobia?
Aerophobia, also called aviophobia, involves a deep fear of flying in a plane.1 Often, someone with aerophobia understands that flying is safe, but still feels excessively fearful.1 In minor cases, they may suffer from mild anxiety prior to or during flight (which might be exacerbated if it’s storming and they’re also afraid of thunderstorms). In more extreme cases, people may experience debilitating panic attacks and the severity and duration of anxiety symptoms will require treatment from a licensed mental-health professional.
How Common Is Aerophobia?
Fear of flying is one of the most common phobias people experience. Experts suspect that about 25 million adults in the U.S. experience aerophobia at any one time.4
Who Is at Risk for Aerophobia?
There are some trends that seem to predict who has a higher risk of aerophobia. Aerophobia is most common in:4
- People ages 17 to 34
- People who have had a recent life stress or transition
- Those with negative or scary flying experiences
- People with family histories of high stress or panic
Common Symptoms of Aerophobia
People who struggle with aerophobia will experience intense anxiety at the thought of flying or as they’re in flight. Often, symptoms of aerophobia present in similar ways as the symptoms of other phobias.
Symptoms of aerophobia include:2
- Feeling like you’re choking on air or saliva
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- Foggy mind, which may lead to confusion or disorientation
- An increase in heart rate, leading to flushed skin and body shakes
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Nausea or vomiting
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Excessive sweating
Conditions Related to Aerophobia & Flight Anxiety
Some people experience aerophobia as a collection of other panic-inducing situations culminating into one situation. Some conditions related to aerophobia include:
- Claustrophobia: Many people with aerophobia feel triggered by the small space and feel trapped.
- Fear of heights: Aerophobia tends to trigger people due to the focus on heights, even if the person does not normally experience the fear in other settings.
- Social anxiety: On airplanes, people feel forced into social situations due to proximity, which can be stressful for some.
- Germ-related phobias: With all of those people in a small space, some may be panicked about germs and possible contamination.
What Causes Aerophobia?
Studies suggest that there may be multiple reasons for developing aerophobia.4 For instance, someone with a fear of flying may have underlying physical conditions like heart disease or sinus problems that become more irritated in the air.2 They could also exhibit an underlying physiological or psychological issue like trauma or germaphobia.
Possible causes of aerophobia include:2
- Past trauma related to flying: Whether the person was involved in a past incident on a plane or watched plane passengers endure trauma, they may develop a fear of flying.
- Feeling out of control during the flight: Placing your safety into someone else’s hands may trigger feelings of fear and distrust, leading to the development of aerophobia.
- Being raised to have a fear of planes: Sometimes, our parents’ fears end up being passed on to us through how they talk about the experience, leading to the development of the same fears they harbor.
- Individual reasons: Some people develop a fear of flying due to reasons not even related to flying. Whether the person struggles with social anxiety, germaphobia, claustrophobia, or is dealing with some other issue experienced in flight, they may develop a reluctance or fear to be in the air.
7 Tips for How to Get Over a Fear of Flying
Aerophobia is a treatable mental health condition, and in many mild cases, you may be able to get over your fears on your own by understanding your fears and working through your negative thought patterns around flying.
Here are seven practical tips for coping with aerophobia:
1. Educate Yourself About Air Travel
Often, fears are strengthened by mystery. Learning about safety measures, including plane mechanics and turbulence, may help alleviate your anxiety.2 You can do online research, watch YouTube videos, read books, or attend group classes for people who struggle with fear of flying. These resources are offered by many airline companies.
2. Recognize When Your Thoughts Are Becoming Irrational
Work to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. For instance, if you find yourself thinking about what might go wrong, try thinking about the wonderful things you will experience at your flight’s destination. Whenever you catch yourself slipping back into negative thoughts, tell your mind to “stop” and shift focus to something positive.2
3. Understand Your Triggers
When you find your fear and anxiety peaking, observe your environment and thought patterns so you can better understand what is triggering your fear responses. Triggers include certain thoughts, sights, memories, sensations, or even smells.1
4. Practice Relaxation Techniques
You may be able to better cope with aerophobia if you develop techniques to help calm yourself down. Try breathing techniques, visualization, or progressive muscle relaxation to help relieve your symptoms. Some people find journaling, meditating, or praying helps them get through their fears.2 Try to practice these techniques two or three weeks prior to boarding a plane. The more practice you have, the more effective these techniques will be.
5. Distract Yourself
Figuring out a way to distract yourself can help alleviate feelings of fear. Bring along relaxing elements to immerse yourself in such as a soothing playlist, a comfort movie, or your favorite book.
6. Set Travel Goals
So much beauty around the world is not accessible without air travel. Set travel goals for yourself, including where to go and what to do when you get there to motivate yourself to get on a plane despite your fears.
7. Ask for Help
Help from your friends and family can be invaluable, but at times, it is not enough. Consider asking for help from mental health professionals to make progress quickly.
How Is Aerophobia Diagnosed?
Diagnosing aerophobia will be a straightforward process for mental health professionals. By conducting an interview with you, they can quickly determine if your anxiety is typical or if you truly have a fear of flying.
Treatment for Aerophobia
Most cases of severe aerophobia can be treated with therapy, including exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), systematic desensitization, and medication.1 Sometimes, these treatments work on their own; other times, they will be grouped together to create a more effective phobia treatment plan.
Exposure therapy provides benefits to people who are suffering from phobias, even aerophobia. It has been touted as the best form of therapy for a fear of flying. It is executed through controlled exposure to flying, whether that be through visualization strategies, virtual reality (VRET), flight simulations, or actual flight.1
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is one of the most commonly used forms of therapy to treat patients suffering from phobias. Through conversation, the therapist can assist the patient to understand their negative thought patterns, develop new ways of coping, and understand what is triggering their flight anxiety.
Systematic desensitization is a form of therapy that utilizes the classical-conditioning principles.3 The goal is to remove the fear responses and replace them with relaxation responses through a counterconditioning method. To begin, the patient is taught relaxation techniques and breathing exercises. Then, they’re slowly exposed to their fear. As the exposure increases in intensity, they will practice their relaxation techniques until they are comfortable enough to move on to the next level of intensity.3
Group therapy sessions may help those experiencing a more mild fear of flying with no underlying physical or mental-health issues. These classes often last two to three days and give people a chance to meet with pilots and learn about planes and the measures taken for optimal safety. You may even be given an opportunity to board a plane.
Flight Anxiety Medication
Medication may be prescribed by a psychiatrist to help alleviate certain symptoms of aerophobia like nausea or anxiety. Some of the most commonly prescribed medications for patients suffering from aerophobia are anti-anxiety medications like Xanax, Valium, or motion-sickness medications like promethazine.
How to Get Help for Fear of Flying
If you’re suffering from aerophobia, you may find help in reaching out to a mental-health professional. They can help you understand your phobia, treat it, and figure out whether there are any other underlying causes contributing to your fears. You can find a mental-health professional in an online therapist directory, through your insurance, or by word of mouth from friends or family.
What’s the Outlook for People With Aerophobia?
Due to the strong success rates of treatment, the outlook for people with aerophobia is strong. Treatment works, so whether you engage in therapy or therapy and medication, you can expect to feel better quickly.
Aerophobia can negatively impact your life in many ways. Fortunately, this phobia is a treatable mental-health issue that you can overcome with the help of a good therapist, trusted friends and family, and medication, if necessary.